As a student of literature, I pride myself on my vast knowledge of black authors. Although my focus in school was mainly American literature, I never considered myself ignorant of black talent across the world. That is, until now. So, apparently, Alexander Pushkin, my favorite Russian writer, was black.
I will admit, I never studied the history of Pushkin nor have I delved into Russian history as much as I have the language and poetry. It isn’t an easy task to translate poetry or to even find texts in a foreign language that I can read let alone understand, but still, I am guilty of not paying attention to a very important historical detail about Pushkin, a man that most critics agree is “the father of Russian literature”.
From what I have studied in African-American or Caribbean literature, blackness is fundamental to the writings of black people. The experiences of black people, especially in America, cannot be separated from our art, and thus, I would think that the blackness of Pushkin would inform his work in a unique manner. Still, after reading numerous poems and a few of his short stories, I had no idea that Pushkin might be of African descent. While his fiction is dark and can be read as a commentary on the upper military class, there are few indicators that the author might be considered “other” by Russian society. It isn’t until exploring Pushkin’s unpublished works that readers might suspect that Pushkin was indeed, black. In fact, the author may have had some anxiety about “outing” himself to the public; the novel about Pushkin’s great-grandfather and his African ancestry, titled The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, was never published in his lifetime.
I will admit, I have struggled with the fact that I didn’t know that Pushkin was black. I have read a number of his poems and, this summer, worked diligently on a dual-language book of his short stories that I truly enjoyed. How did I miss his blackness? Was I too focused on the language aspect, the beauty of the Russian rhyme? The answers seems to be more complex than my obliviousness. Some scholars believe he didn’t want the general public to know of his African heritage, which wasn’t a central theme in his work, but not a secret, either. It seems that his blackness didn’t really gain recognition until after his death, and even then not by his own countrymen but by African-Americans. American abolitionists extolled Pushkin as an example of what a cultured black person might accomplish without racial barriers and during the Harlem Renaissance, Pushkin was favored because he wrote in the Russian vernacular, giving a voice to the lower class, if not specifically black Russians. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., “no one informed the African American imagination more than Pushkin, the tragic Romantic hero of the American abolitionist movement” (Under the Sky of My Africa). Even now, Pushkin remains a beacon for black artists and intellectuals because, while during his lifetime he was considered a hot-blooded rogue, his blackness never prevented the father of Russian literature from becoming a well-known and celebrated writer within his own country and abroad.
xoxo C. Diva